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Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: Texts and Traditions

Anchoritism in the Middle Ages: Texts and Traditions

by Catherine Innes-Parker

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This volume explores medieval anchoritism (the life of a solitary religious recluse) from a variety of perspectives. The individual essays conceive anchoritism in broadly interpretive categories: challenging perceived notions of the very concept of anchoritic ‘rule’ and guidance; studying the interaction between language and linguistic forms; addressing


This volume explores medieval anchoritism (the life of a solitary religious recluse) from a variety of perspectives. The individual essays conceive anchoritism in broadly interpretive categories: challenging perceived notions of the very concept of anchoritic ‘rule’ and guidance; studying the interaction between language and linguistic forms; addressing the connection between anchoritism and other forms of solitude (particularly in European tales of sanctity); and exploring the influence of anchoritic literature on lay devotion. As a whole, the volume illuminates the richness and fluidity of anchoritic texts and contexts and shows how anchoritism pervaded the spirituality of the Middle Ages, for lay and religious alike. It moves through both space and time, ranging from the third century to the sixteenth, from England to the Continent and back.

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University of Wales Press
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Religion and Culture in the Middle Ages
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Anchoritism in the Middle Ages

Texts and Traditions

By Catherine Innes-Parker, Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2013 the Contributors
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78316-039-6


Can there be such a thing as an 'anchoritic rule'?

* * *


Some years ago I wrote an article on the genre of Ancrene Wisse which traced its debts to contemporary and earlier monastic legislation. But its author's ambivalent attitude to this legislative tradition raised a broader question not fully explored in the article: can there be such a thing as an 'anchoritic rule'?

In her standard work Anchorites and their Patrons in Medieval England, Ann K. Warren implies that the term 'rule' in this context is misleading: 'Writings for anchorites are classified as ascetic treatises. They give practical instruction for achieving ultimate Christian goals in this world and the next. Unlike monastic rules, which are demands, rules for anchorites are suggestions and supports.' By 'anchorites' here, Warren means specifically recluses, but the point she is making could be applied to writings for solitaries in general, and I shall be using the terms 'anchorite' and 'anchoritic' in this article in their broader sense, to refer to hermits as well as recluses. It is true that medieval 'rules' for solitaries lacked canonical status; some of the works that Warren lists as 'anchorite rules', such as Rolle's Form of Living and Hilton's Scale of Perfection, could certainly be more appropriately described as 'ascetic treatises' than as 'rules' in the strict sense. It is arguable, however, that the relationship between monastic rules and 'rules' for solitaries is both closer and more problematic than her comments suggest. Some of these 'rules' have clearly been influenced in their content and structure by monastic models, and although they sometimes acknowledge their lack of legislative status, they may do so defensively or even defiantly, offering a radical alternative to the monastic legislative tradition on which they draw.

The ambivalence in this relationship reflects an underlying tension between monastic and anchoritic ideals. The monastic life is based on obedience, the anchoritic life on independence; one requires the renunciation of the will, the other the exercise of free choice. The comparative freedom of the solitary life had its dangers, and monastic writers in particular tended to see it as a liability rather than an asset; Giles Constable, discussing twelfth-century monastic concepts of solitude, notes that 'excessive freedom and lack of obedience were among the commonest charges against hermits, and the desire to become a hermit was sometimes regarded as a temptation from the devil'. Ivo of Chartres (c. 1040–1115) warns a monk who was thinking of taking up the solitary life, 'Vita ... solitaria ideo inferior est, quia voluntaria et importunis cogitationibus plena, quae tanquam muscae minutissimae de limo surgentes volant in oculos cordis et interrumpunt sabbatum mentis' (The solitary life is inferior because it is voluntary and full of importunate thoughts, which like tiny flies rising from the mire fly into the eyes of the soul and disturb the mind's Sabbath). Bernard the Carthusian, advising a male recluse in the mid-twelfth century, stresses the greater risk of pride for the solitary in similar terms: 'Jejunanti tibi, oranti, psallenti, non deerunt invisibiles inimici, applaudentes tibi, et dicentes: Euge, euge, quis tibi similis? quis ita placet Deo? O si scirent homines sanctitatem tuam!' (While you are fasting, praying, reciting the Psalms, there will be no shortage of invisible enemies, applauding you and saying, 'Fantastic! Is there anyone like you? Is there anyone else who pleases God so much? Ooh, if people only knew how holy you are!')

Reservations of this kind can be traced back as far as the patristic period. Although the term monachus (from Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'single') was initially applied to all those who chose to withdraw from the world, whether individually or in groups, by the late fourth century the development of more formally regulated monastic communities had already led to a sharper differentiation between anchoritic and cenobitic ways of life, and the emergence of tensions between them. In a letter of advice composed in 411, Jerome tells the young man Rusticus that the first question he must address if he wants to be a true monachus is 'utrum solus an cum aliis in monasterio uiuere debeas' (whether you ought to live alone or in a monastery with others). Jerome, who had himself lived as a hermit for a short period in the 370s, says that he has no wish to denigrate the solitary lifestyle, but it is an unwise choice for a beginner in the religious life: 'in solitudine cito subrepit superbia et, si parumper ieiunauerit hominemque non uiderit, putat se alicuius esse momenti ... quod gula poposcerit, porrigit manus; dormit quantum uoluerit, facit, quod uoluerit; nullum ueretur, omnes se inferiores putat' (Pride quickly creeps up in solitude and, if [the solitary] has fasted for a little and not seen anybody, he becomes self-important ... any food he fancies, he grabs; he sleeps as much as he likes, does what he likes; he respects nobody and thinks everyone inferior to himself). Arguing that 'nulla ars absque magistro discitur' (no skill is learnt without a master), and that only those who have been subjected to the discipline of a monastic community are properly trained to fight against the Devil, he tells Rusticus that he should enter a monastery:

ut ... non facias, quod uis, comedas, quod iuberis, habeas, quantum acceperis, uestiaris, quod acceperis, operis tui pensa persoluas, subiciaris, cui non uis ... praepositum monasterii timeas ut dominum, diligas ut parentem, credas tibi salutare, quidquid ille praeceperit, nec de maioris sententia iudices, cuius officii est oboedire et inplere, quae iussa sunt, dicente Moyse: audi, Israhel, et tace.

(so that ... you do not do what you want, you eat what you are told to, you have as much as you are given, you wear what you are given, you do the jobs allocated to you, you have no say in who supervises you ... you fear the superior of the monastery as a master, you love him as a parent, you believe that whatever he tells you to do is in your interests, and you do not pass judgement on your superior's decisions, since your role is to obey and carry out orders, as Moses says: 'Listen, Israel, and be silent' [Deut. 27: 9 (Septuagint)].)

The Rule of St Benedict, composed in the early or mid-sixth century, takes up the same themes. The opening passage of its prologue focuses on the monastic ideal of the renunciation of the will, emphasizing the role of the abbot as both master and father, and the necessity of obedience as a preparation for spiritual warfare:

Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui, et admonitionem pii patris libenter excipe et efficaciter comple, ut ad eum per oboedientiae laborem redeas, a quo per inoboedientiae desidiam recesseras. Ad te ergo nunc mihi sermo dirigitur, quisquis abrenuntians propriis voluntatibus, Domino Christo vero regi militaturus, oboedientiae fortissima atque praeclara arma sumis.

(Listen carefully, my son, to the master's instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. This is advice from a father who loves you; welcome it, and faithfully put it into practice. The labour of obedience will bring you back to him from whom you had drifted through the sloth of disobedience. This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will, once and for all, and armed with the strong and noble weapons of obedience to do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord.)

The first chapter of the Rule, on different kinds of monachi, draws on an existing tradition of monastic writing which argued that anchoritism should be seen not as an alternative to cenobitism but (as Jerome had recommended in his letter to Rusticus) as a development from it, suitable only for the spiritually advanced. Only two of the four types of monachi listed are seen as acceptable, those who belong to a monastery and those who have entered the anchoritic life after an extended monastic probation:

Primum coenobitarum, hoc est monasteriale, militans sub regula vel abbate. Deinde secundum genus est anachoritarum, id est eremitarum, horum qui non conversationis fervore novicio, sed monasterii probatione diuturna, qui didicerunt contra diabolum multorum solacio iam docti pugnare, et bene exstructi fraterna ex acie ad singularem pugnam eremi, securi iam sine consolatione alterius, sola manu vel brachio contra vitia carnis vel cogitationum, Deo auxiliante, pugnare sufficiunt.

(First, there are the cenobites, that is to say, those who belong to a monastery, where they serve under a rule and an abbot. Second, there are the anchorites or hermits, who have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervour of monastic life. Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against the devil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their brothers to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God's help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.)

The other two types are the sarabaitae who live alone or in small groups without training or a pastor (shepherd), and the gyrovagi who travel around constantly from monastery to monastery; both groups are harshly criticized for their freedom of will, and the gyrovagi also for their freedom of movement.

The Regula solitariorum by Grimlaic of Metz, compiled about 900, is addressed to a category of anchorites whose way of life has been still more closely assimilated to a monastic model, 'cenobitic solitaries'. Monachi who 'remain within the enclosure of the monastery yet are permitted to have separate cells under the abbot's authority' are mentioned in a decree of the Council of Vannes (461×491), and appear more frequently in the records from the mid-sixth century onwards. Grimlaic's Regula goes further than the Rule of St Benedict in seeing enclosure within the precincts of the monastery as the norm; enclosure in centres of population outside the monastery is forbidden, and withdrawal to the wilderness, although permitted, is presented as a rare and spiritually audacious enterprise:

Prohibendum est ... ut in nullo alio loco hoc religionis propositum a quoquam assumatur, nisi in coenobiorum congregationibus tantum. In villis autem aut in campestribus ecclesiis, sive in aliis quibuslibet locis nullatenus praesumatur assumere, nisi forte quis more antiquorum Patrum ad eremum velit secedere

(It should ... be prohibited that someone resolve to live this religious life in any place other than in communities of cenobites; no one should be allowed to resolve to live this way in villages or in country churches or in any other places, unless perhaps someone might wish to go apart into the wilderness, as did our forebears of old).

After a year's probation in the monastery, those who wish to become solitaries are allocated individual cells within its enclosure, but they are required where possible to live in closeknit groups of at least two or three, to avert the risks of self-indulgence and spiritual complacency.23

This assimilation of the anchoritic to the cenobitic is reflected in the nature of Grimlaic's Regula. Although in the Prologue, Grimlaic modestly disclaims his own authority, describing his work as a compilation of patristic material, in other respects there seems to be little functional difference between the Regula solitariorum and its principal model, the Rule of St Benedict. The account of the anchorite's profession in chapter 15 is based, with only minor modifications of content and wording, on the prescriptions for monastic profession in chapter 58 of the Benedictine Rule and, like the monk, the anchorite takes a binding vow to observe the rule he has chosen under the authority of the abbot:

si promiserit stabilitatis suae perseverantiam, legatur ei haec Regula, et dicatur ei: Ecce lex sub qua militare vis, si potes servare, ingredere; si vero non potes, liber discede. Si adhuc steterit, legatur ei haec Regula sedule, ut sciat ad quod ingreditur, et probetur in omni patientia. Et si habita secum deliberatione promiserit se omnia custodire, tunc blande leniterque suscipiatur ad destinatum propositum, sciens se lege Regulae constitutum, quod ei ex illa die non liceat egredi ex ipsa retrusione; nec collum excutere de sub jugo Regulae, quam sub tam morosa deliberatione licuit ei excusare aut suscipere.

(if he promises to persevere in being stable, let this rule be read to him, and let it be said to him: Here, then, is the law under which you want to serve as a soldier; if you are able to serve, go in, but if you cannot, you are free to leave. If he still stands firm, let this rule be read to him carefully, so that he may know what he is entering into, and let him be tested in all patience. If he has thought it over within himself and promises to keep everything, then gently and quietly let him be received into the purpose he has resolved upon, knowing as he does that it is established by the law of the rule that from that day forth he may not go out of that enclosure; neither may he throw off from his neck the yoke of the rule that, during such protracted reflection, he was free either to decline or to accept.)

Grimlaic's Regula solitariorum is in effect an anchoritic supplement to the Rule of St Benedict, and this passage indicates that its prescriptions were meant to be taken not merely as 'suggestions and supports' but – at any rate from the moment of anchoritic profession – as 'demands'. It offers one possible solution to the tension between anchoritic independence and cenobitic obedience, the integration of solitaries into an existing monastic legislative structure.

From the eleventh century onwards, however, the new developments in the religious life which characterized the 'Medieval Reformation' simultaneously complicated and destabilized the relationship between anchoritic and cenobitic ideals. The traditional alternatives of anchoritism and Benedictine monasticism became the extremes of a continuum incorporating newer, intermediate forms of the religious life. Towards the monastic end of the continuum, the ideal of obedience advocated in the Rule of St Benedict began to be questioned, while towards the anchoritic end, some eremitic groups began to develop their own rule-governed forms of communal life.

The kind of challenge faced in this period by the Benedictine ideal of absolute obedience can be illustrated by two case studies from the early twelfth century, one taken from the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, the other from the correspondence of Abelard and Heloise.

Bernard's treatise De Praecepto et dispensatione (1141x1144) originated as a response to two Benedictine monks who were dissatisfied with their abbot and had written to Bernard without his knowledge, questioning the authority not just of the abbot but of the Rule of St Benedict itself:

Quaeritis nempe, regularis illa institutio quomodo et quatenus sit pensanda profitentibus eam, utrum videlicet cuncta quae continet putanda sint esse praecepta, consequenter et damnosa transgredienti, an consilia tantum vel monita, et ob hoc nullius aut non magni sit ponderis ipsorum professio, nullius aut non gravis culpae ipsorum praevaricatio, an certe quaedam sint deputanda imperiis, quaedam pro consiliis reputanda, quo partim ea liceat, partim non liceat omnino praetergredi ...

(You ask how seriously a monastic rule is to be taken by those who profess it, and whether all its precepts are to be considered as binding under pain of sin. Are they commands, or only counsels and admonitions which may be lightly promised and lightly transgressed? Are some counsels and others commands, so that we may ignore the former so long as we keep the latter?)


Excerpted from Anchoritism in the Middle Ages by Catherine Innes-Parker, Naoë Kukita Yoshikawa. Copyright © 2013 the Contributors. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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